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Pushups: The Underrated Old-School Exercise Smashes Your Upper Body

The pushup is the most legendary exercise of all time. This super-effective deadweight exercise is pumped out by everyone from school sports kids to elite SAS elite soldiers. The following guide provides pushup variants for beginners, professionals and everyone in-between.


The classic push-up primarily stimulates the pressure muscles of the upper body. 

  • Pecs
  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Core


Like any exercise, execution is critical in getting the result you want. Executing correctly also minimizes the risk of injury.

Starting position

Begin the classic starting push-up position with your upper body is parallel to the floor. Keep your forearms perpendicular to the floor to give yourself maximum pushing power with your hands aligned next to your lower chest, not your shoulders.

When you push up, its as though you are performing the perfect plank. Don’t sag in the core. That’s a rookie error. Squeezing your glutes stops you from a breaking at the waist, which contributes to sagging. Squeezing your shoulder blades protects your shoulder from injury.

Finish strong

Push all the way up, straightening your arms at the top. This maximizes strength gain. When lowering, the upper and lower body must form a straight line. As soon as your face almost touches the floor, the next upward movement is initiated.  

4 Common pushup mistakes

  • Having your hands too wide which causes elbow flaring and can cause shoulder damage.
  • Hands turned in slightly can also lead to flared elbows and shoulder injuries. Keep hands facing forward.
  • Hunching your shoulders as your fatigue. Pull your shoulders down away from your ears.
  • Pumping out reps as fast as possible. This puts you at risk of injury and besides, a slowed down movement gives you a far better workout.

Rep rate is critical

In weight training, the term cadence stands for the speed of movement during an exercise. A repetition rate of at least 1/1 is recommended for pushups. That means 1 second pushing up from the starting position and 1 second lowering to starting position. If you want to intensify the exercise, you can follow a cadence of 1/2. That’s a 1 second pushup and a 2 second lowering. 

Of course, the number of well-executed sets and reps you build up to determined how sculpted that chest is going to get and how fit you’ll be.

An epic pushup workout

Grab a stopwatch and time how long it takes to do as many pushups as you can, then rest for the same time period as you completed them. So if you did 30 pushups in 36 seconds, you rest for 35 seconds. Then repeat the process 2-3 times. So on your second set you do 24 in 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds. Of course you can do as many sets as you want but don’t overdo it.

How effective are push ups for building strength and muscle mass?

Pushups have a dusty old-school image and are often ditched in favor of bench presses and more modern gear. The bench press comes very close to the push-up in terms of the muscles used and has the advantage of being able to be racked up with heavier weights.  

The science is in

A lot of people also believe pushups are limiting in building strength and muscle mass. In the past, sports science believed training in the high rep range primarily addressed muscle endurance rather than building muscle and building strength. From recent studies, however, we now know that this is only half the story. The finding tells us that training sets with up to 35 reps also build mass and muscle.

Go to the max to build muscle

You build muscle strength and mass with pushups when you push it to the limit. When you go hard and have nothing left to give, that’s when pushups own the gym and build that rock hard muscle. 

Cant do a pushup? No problem

A lot of trainers suggest doing pushups on your knees to build up to a classic pushup. But that’s not ideal and doesn’t prepare your core for when you’re ready to rip out the real deal.

A better idea is to start with a box or a chair. This lightens the amount of bodyweight you have to press upwards. You can still tighten your abs and glutes and keep your body in a straight line just like you do in a regular pushup. As you get stronger, use smaller boxes or lower chairs. Eventually, your hands will be on the gym floor and you’ll be pumping out reps like a pro. Stick with it.


Once you’ve conquered the standard pushup, here are 7 challenging variations you can try to get that chest ripped and your core strong and supple.


Start in a regular push-up position with your feet no more than 30cm apart. Put your hands flat on the ground below your shoulders. Keeping your arms straight, breathe in as you bend your elbows keep them back alongside your body lowering your chest to just below the level of your bent elbow. Then breathe out as you push back up to the starting position. That’s one rep.  

Wide Hands 

Its just like the military push-up, as described above except your hands your farther to each side around two to three feet. The wider the harder. Keep your elbows tracking back throughout pushup.


Start in the plank position with your hands together and angled inward at 45 degrees. Your index fingers and thumbs should touch to form a diamond. Keep your elbows tight to your body and bend them to lower your chest toward the triangle. Reverse the movement to the starting position for one repetition. Aim to keep the triangle directly below your chest throughout the reps.


Begin in a downward dog yoga position, bent over touching the ground with your hands and feet just wider than your shoulders. Keep your hips high, heels low, and maintain the inverted-V position as you bend your elbows and lower your head toward the floor between your hands. Reverse the movement to the starting position for one repetition.

Start in the above downward dog position. From there, bend your elbows and lower your nose to the floor between your hands, like a pike push-up. Then, without rising, continue moving your torso forward, sliding your chin, chest, and rib cage between your hands. Next, begin to arc your head and torso upward until your arms are straight, hips are pressed toward the ground, and your back is hyperextended in cobra pose. Reverse the movement exactly until youre back in downward dog.

Staggered Hands 

From a regular push-up position, move one hand forward and the other back so the difference is about 30cm. Bend your elbows to lower your chest until it is slightly below the level of your bent elbow. Next, extend your elbows to push back up to the starting position. Keep your elbows tight to your body the whole time. After one or more reps, switch hand positions to work each side evenly.


Start in a plank position, with your forearms flat on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Push up with your triceps until your arms are fully extended, then lower your body until your elbows are just off the ground. Continue until your arms are fully extended, then lower your elbows until they’re just above the ground to complete one repetition. The farther forward you place your arms, the harder it is.

Spiderman (Side Kick) 

From the standard push-up position, lower yourself toward the ground, simultaneously bringing one knee out to the side and up to touch your elbow, with your leg parallel to the ground. Your knee should touch your elbow at the lowest point of the push-up. Reverse the movement to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

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